The relentless pursuit of resilience: An interview with Matthew Godsoe

By Lilia Yumagulova

Summary: This interview with Matt Godsoe, DSocSci, Director of the Emergency Management Strategy Implementation Office provides insights into Canada’s recently released  Emergency Management Strategy.

In early 2019, the Government of Canada released its new Emergency Management Strategy for Canada: Toward a Resilient 2030. The strategy charts “a collaborative, whole-of-society roadmap to strengthening Canada’s ability to assess risks, prevent/mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters”. For this HazNet issue, we sat down with Dr. Matthew Godsoe, Director for Emergency Management Strategy Implementation Office, who led the development of the strategy.


Matt Godsoe’s interest in emergency management was sparked by a personal experience when his brother went missing on a kayaking trip. The brother turned out fine, never even realizing that he was “missing.” But the incident had an impact on Matt, as he witnessed the large search and rescue, police, and military teams that came in to help.

At 18, Matt trained as a technical rescue instructor, followed by graduate school at Royal Roads University for a Master’s in Disaster and Emergency Management. His graduate work led to an interest in heavy urban search and rescue as well as counter-terrorism, which he studied in Israel. He also taught as a technical rescue instructor for the British Military and for Parks Services across Canada.

Upon looking for a job more conducive to graduate studies, he found one at Public Safety Canada. He has been working there for over ten years, with a short interlude at Defence Research and Development Canada. In 2018, he graduated with a Doctorate in emergency management from Royal Roads University.

A different way forward

LY: Please tell us about the process behind the strategy.

MG: There is an acute recognition now at all levels of government in Canada of the growing severity and frequency of disasters in Canada. We’re certainly seeing that in the federal government, and the provinces and territories and many municipalities are also recognizing we have to think differently about how we deal with these events.

In light of this realization, the Minister of Public Safety in his 2015 mandate letter received direction to work with provinces, territories, Indigenous Peoples, municipalities and other stakeholders to find a different way forward for addressing disaster risks in Canada. That kicked off two years of consultations with a wide range of entities, including non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross and first response organizations, both professional and volunteer, such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, fire and paramedic chiefs, and volunteer search and rescue community—anybody who could help us think through how we could do things differently domestically in Canada. We also reached out to strategic allies around the world and our partners within Canada to see what they were doing and if there were lessons we could learn.

Then, about 18 months ago, we sat down with the provincial and territorial senior officials responsible for emergency management and began co-drafting a strategy, with the intent of building off of existing legislative and policy foundations, such as the federal Emergency Management Act and Emergency Management Framework for Canada.

Nothing in the new strategy undoes any existing work. It’s designed for us to think differently about the way we are planning disaster risk reduction, and gives us an opportunity to think longer-term about our work, aligning our priorities out to the year 2030.

LY: What sets the strategy apart from the previous Emergency Management documents?

MG: The Emergency Management Framework for Canada gives the overall structure of how we think about emergency management: how the federal, provincial and territorial governments collaborate, as emergency management in Canada is a shared responsibility. What the framework doesn’t talk about is how to stimulate the engagement of broader elements of society in Canada: how to work with communities with a focus on ‘resilience’, which is broader than what we’ve traditionally thought about in emergency management.

A novel feature of the strategy is that in its objectives it adopts the ‘4 Es’ model of building community resiliency—Educating, Empowering, Encouraging and Engaging all elements of society. It recognizes the roles segments of society have to play, aligning us with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which Canada along with 187 other countries around the world signed on to in 2015, and which also has a timeline to the year 2030. One big emphasis in Sendai is a whole-of-society approach to DRR. So, the strategy takes us further down the road of having a national plan to implement DRR.

Not just government partners, a whole society

LY: Given that “resilience” is a key word of the strategy, what do you see as the most promising elements of this strategy for building resilience in Canada?

MG: Formally recognizing the role that all sectors of society already play in emergency management is important. Often times the way we think is restricted to the partners we engage and collaborate with regularly. But when we step back, we remember that the whole of Canadian society responds to events: other groups always play an important role.

Another element involves better integrating Indigenous voices in governance in emergency management. We have seen in after-action reports—such as from after the British Columbia fires—that there is an opportunity to better recognize Indigenous voices in formal governance processes. There is a commitment in this strategy to make that recognition more explicit.

LY: Given the strategy’s alignment with Sendai, where are we as a country in Sendai’s progress monitor and other public accountability processes?

MG: It’s a good question. At the time Sendai got signed off on in 2015, there was a commitment for an open-ended working group to be stood up to develop indicators of progress. I was part of that work, leading the Canadian delegation in negotiations. In 2017, we got to a methodology with a staged rollout process that would allow us to track progress against disaster risk reduction.

An advantage we’ve had in Canada is for some time we’ve been tracking disaster related impacts equivalent to the monitoring indicators through the Canadian Disaster Database, which captures almost 100 years of disaster impacts retrospectively and concurrently. Now we are working to mine and validate that data before we put it into the Sendai monitoring tool, to ensure it’s as consistent and rigorous as possible. We’re optimistic we are going to be on track with the monitoring. Certainly, we have lots more data than other countries in the process.

Building on Indigenous knowledge

LY: While federally we have supporting frameworks and governance structures, many resilience activities happen at the local level. Do you think this strategy could help stimulate better feedback loops between provinces and local governments, as well as Indigenous communities?

MG: Local governments and Indigenous communities are on two separate tracks. With Indigenous communities, there is a more direct line with Indigenous Services Canada. Whereas local governments are entities of the provinces and territories. But overall the strategy commits to moving beyond the federal, provincial and territorial tables as we shape incentive structures, and sharing relevant information not just with each other at the federal, provincial and territorial level, but with communities and with individual citizens as well.

LY: Could you highlight some work happening through the Indigenous portfolio— such as the Inventory—to give our readers a context of that work?

MG: Most of the work happening with Indigenous communities goes through Indigenous Services Canada, so they are the best ones to speak to it. But Public Safety Canada is working with the national Indigenous organizations to inventory Indigenous capabilities, leveraging language and activities they feel are most impactful for emergency management readiness and capabilities in Indigenous communities.

We are developing a data collection tool to collect this information, and consolidate it into actionable intelligence to share with municipalities, provinces and territories. This tool—piloted over the last year—allows us to get a picture of what these emergency management capabilities look like in aggregate across Canada, and also make that available to Indigenous communities. Dozens of communities have already undergone the pilot, and national Indigenous organizations are indicating it would be good to roll it out on a broader scale. So, we will continue to move that forward.

Rethinking redevelopment in high-risk zones

LY: How will ‘Build Back Better’ be supported over the next 20 years?

MG: That is one of the major pillars of the Sendai Framework that everyone is trying to implement. We have been going down that road in Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA), with 15% added to the terms and conditions of that program in 2008 to allow provinces and territories to not just build back to previous standards, but to build resilience into infrastructure above and beyond, or try to pool those costs to implement innovate mitigation measures. Building from those successes is important.

We’ve also seen messaging coming out recently from different levels of government about the need to think about redevelopment in high-risk hazard zones. I think that will be a key part of the conversation moving forward. While we can’t foresee the kind of decisions future governments will make, there are successes we’ve already seen, and we can envision a future where those continue to be built upon.

LY: Another commonly mentioned issue is appropriate levels of mapping. How do you see Pillar #1 of Sendai ‘understanding risk’ moving forward in Canada, with the National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP) sunsetting?

MG: In federal, provincial and territorial governments, we have been acutely aware of the importance of a standardized approach to flood mapping. From a federal perspective, we see ourselves having the biggest impact by ensuring that when folks do flood mapping across Canada, those maps speak to one another.

Through the NDMP we funded a collaborative effort between Public Safety Canada and Natural Resources Canada to develop national guidelines on flood mapping. Documents we built as part of the guideline series have been published over the last 12 months. Now the hydrologic and hydraulic data, or at least the metadata in those maps, will be consistent. We know there will be continuity wherever flood mapping is occurring across the country.

Another area we are monitoring is how the insurance industry and other private sector organizations are taking different approaches to remote sensing and flood mapping. Experts have been collaborating with Natural Resources and Public Safety Canada’s work on the Flood Symposium to see if there are opportunities as technology advances for us to adopt different approaches beyond the current flood mapping guidelines.

Building an inventory of pieces at play

LY: You are the director of implementation. What are some plans—broad pathways and also specific things—people can get excited about?

MG: The Emergency Management Strategy was approved at the federal, provincial and territorial meeting of Ministers responsible for emergency management in January of 2019. The conversation at that meeting was very positive with respect to progress developing the strategy.

But there was also a desire to take it a step further, and think about implementation. A tasking came out of that meeting for federal, provincial and territorial senior officials to reconstitute the working group who had developed the action plan and the strategy, and develop an implementation plan.

Now we are working with our provincial and territorial colleagues to take things further in terms of granularity; starting to document programmatic and policy elements across Canada. This work is going to support implementation of the Emergency Management Strategy, with a view to the whole of Canadian society. We also looking to engage with the partners that built the strategy to get a sense of other programmatic and policy elements sectors can incorporate, or at least give a nod to. The next year is about building an inventory of pieces at play. We hope to make everyone aware of what already exists, and to look for opportunities to improve collaborative efforts to coordinate those instruments.

A fundamental tipping point

LY: How do you see this strategy breaking the cycle of investing in response and recovery, and to move into supporting mitigation and preparedness that builds resilience?

MG: As you know, a large-scale disaster can act as a “focusing event,” where the dialogue switches and everyone looks to ensure how this kind of thing doesn’t continue to happen. In recent years, with the increasing frequency and severity of events, those conversations are also happening more frequently.

Our disaster risk profile hit a fundamental tipping point in the mid 1990s and has been continuing to escalate. As those conversations happen more frequently, they are allowing us to direct concerted attention to these questions. Plus, we are accumulating better research and evidence to support decisions, so some of it is contextual.

The strategy goes a long way helping to articulate the importance of prevention and mitigation. For example, it highlights recent findings from the National Institute of Building Science in the United States, which increased the assessment of the Return on Investment for grant and contributions that go towards mitigation measures.

By incorporating the element of ‘Building Back Better’ formally in the structure of the strategy, we hope first response organizations and community partners, who might not see disaster events happen as regularly, will better understand Sendai’s four pillars.

I think some people have been conceptualizing the pillars as independent of the full cycle of emergency management. Now, when you’re doing response and recovery, to the extent you can, you’re also hopefully thinking about how you’re going to build back in ways that increase resilience, and you’re also doing prevention and mitigation in ways that support subsequent preparedness and response efforts. You’re trying to think across those traditional, stand-alone pillars.

Quantifying socioeconomic impacts and financing DRR

LY: To have a more appropriate level of investment, what mechanisms are, or could be, financing the resilience deficit in Canada?

MG: The Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) program has a set formula for response and recovery costs, based on per capita disaster losses in provinces and territories. So, we know roughly what those disasters have been costing us retrospectively. The provinces and territories likewise have visibility into that.

But there are large portions of the overall socioeconomic impacts that we don’t have great visibility on, because they are captured through the private sector or they get eaten by individual Canadians or communities. That makes it hard to quantify what the overall costs of disaster in Canada have been. The Sendai monitoring tool allows us to get a better sense of that picture, to quantify overall impacts.

Now we see organizations like the Insurance Bureau of Canada looking to play a greater role, standing up Canada’s first-ever private residential overland flood insurance market, and also advocating for us to think about how we finance disaster response and recovery costs. They are also playing a bigger role thinking about disaster risk reduction, particularly as it relates to flood, but also to seismic scenarios we’ve seen across the country. As we spread the message about all of us having some element of responsibility to play in disaster risk reduction, more innovative finance mechanisms will continue to come to the surface.

The traditional approach we have towards funding emergency management reactively—such as through the DFAA—is expensive, given the increasing frequency and severity of events. We know the National Disaster Mitigation Program and the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund have a higher return on investment. As more non-traditional stakeholders come to the table offering different ways to help, we’re hoping we can get into a more resilient position.

Integrating existing capabilities into emergency management

LY: Who is currently missing at the table in the emergency management forum?

MG: That’s a challenging question, because the more people you talk, to the more people you realize you need to be engaging. There’s always a balancing act between ensuring you’re engaging with as many partners as you can, while empowering partners you haven’t had an opportunity to engage with yet—to ensure their voices are not lost but rather heard, either through engagement operating federally, or at other levels of government.

There are latent capabilities that exist within the country we know we’d like to know how better to organize. The volunteer sector is a perfect example. Two years ago, we co-sponsored research about with Defence Research and Development Canada to look at how volunteer sector capacity across Canada mapped out against emergency management core capabilities. What they found was there were a number of capabilities—I believe four—where they identified 50,000 trained volunteers ready to support those capabilities. There were another 11 capabilities, if memory serves me correctly, where there were at least 10,000 organized volunteers who were ready to assist.

Part of the work we have to do is to identify those capabilities, to ensure they have an adequate voice at the table. Part of it is also to think through how we integrate those capabilities into our formal process. So the first strategic objective in the Emergency Management Strategy is to think through whole-of-society governance: how do we do a better job of identifying those capabilities?

Some of that comes down to outreach, and some comes down to research. Once those capabilities are identified, how do we incorporate them into our work in a way that’s meaningful, effective, and as seamless as possible?

The evolving field of emergency management

LY: Could you offer a personal perspective on the evolving nature of emergency management—as a practitioner but also as a researcher in this field?

MG: Regarding the discipline of emergency management, the most important perspective in my view is from systems thinking: how the emergency management environment we are operating in now is a complex adaptive system. Once you chew on that assumption, the menu of what we can do to change the situation on a national scale becomes more tangible and also more conducive to scaling up to what we’re going to need in the coming decade, to keep pace with our disaster risk profile.

That ties in to my second perspective, about youth, and the need for an education system more geared towards providing specialized advice, training and education in emergency management. If we emphasize education for youth and in complexity science, that will help us devise solutions that will work at scale in a dynamic operating environment.

LY: What do you have to say to young people entering the profession?

MG: It’s important for young people to be relentless in pursuing their career advancement, their education, and their mastery of the subject matter area. The emergency management discipline is not fully mature at this point, but there a lot of networks and academic and other credentials and accreditations that can be pursued. It’s ripe for people who want to specialize and master it.

I’ve encountered people quite a bit younger than myself who have tons of volunteering experience and significant education—both domestically and internationally—and a real stake in moving us forward. It’s important that young people chase after that relentlessly, because there’s lots for them to get out of the discipline, and lots to contribute back.

Interview transcription by Shaun Koopman. Edits by Suzanne Waldman and Nicole Spence.